Open Access and climate change?

My excellent colleague Colin Smith is Research Repository Manager for Open Research Online (ORO), the OU’s institutional open access repository for research articles. He sees parallels between climate change skepticism and open access skepticism, and argues:

Even if the advantage of doing something contains an element of doubt, if there is no disadvantage to not doing it, why not do it anyway? If there is even the slightest chance that you could become better cited or achieve broader impact for your research through OA, why not just do it? As I always like to remind people, it takes little over one minute to deposit a journal article in ORO using the DOI (for proof see ourscreencast of this being done, and at a rather conservative pace, it has to be said!), and certainly no more than two or three minutes if you have to enter the details manually

The obvious (well, to me it’s obvious) counter-argument is that there are disadvantages to taking the alternative course. There are always disadvantages to any course of action. This is true in climate change, and true in academic publishing. In both cases I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, but it crucially depends on what action is being proposed.

In the academic publishing area, there are more disadvantages than simply the opportunity cost of the time taken to put a pre-publication draft in an institutional repository like ORO. (Which I agree is a small amount of time, so long as you already know what ORO is and what you should be submitting, and have the full details at hand.)

There’s the argument that open access (OA) publishing will undermine commercial publishers, and we’ll end up without the editorial, marketing and other support currently provided by that funding stream. Relatedly, there’s an argument that the support for the production and distribution of printed copies will dry up, which will have a negative impact on access to articles.  There’s also the argument that shifting the payment burden from readers to writers puts up barriers to publishing which are more significant than the barriers to reading with non-OA systems.

And at the choice-of-journal stage, there’s the big factor – which muddies any impact study – that journals are not all equal. I’m keen on open access, and am an editor of an open-access journal (the Journal of Interactive Media in Education, JIME), but I would be the first to admit that you’ll get a lot more citations and impact if you get your paper in Nature than in JIME, excellent as it is.

As I said, I think the benefits of a large-scale shift to OA publishing outweigh the costs, and heavily. But I don’t think it helps the argument to make out that the costs don’t exist at all. (I think this is also true in the climate change case, but that’s very off-topic for this blog – and like Colin, I’d really rather not have a climate change argument out here.)

On submitting to ORO in particular, though, the marginal costs are very low, and the potential benefits high. As an academic, you’ve already made the decision about where to publish and been accepted. There’s a particularly clever feature to the system: when you submit your paper to the site, you don’t need to worry about what the journal’s position on open access publishing is. You can and should just submit it anyway, and the excellent, expert ORO staff (aided by expert Librarians) will check for you and only make material available where permitted. That way the institution can use its full, collective leverage on publishers to get a sensible deal. Also, ORO is used extensively for research tracking purposes in the OU, so if you don’t put your stuff there, you risk appearing to have a smaller research profile than you in fact do.

Colin has a closing thought:

if we think of academic journals in the OA debate as oil in the climate change debate, we are only going to have less and less access to them as time goes on. Academic libraries cannot afford to subscribe to them all, and that is only going to get worse. In the same way that in 50, 100, 150 years time (whatever it may be) we will have no oil-based fuel to put in our cars, in 10, 15, 20 years time you may be even less likely than you are now to reach your desired audience by simply relying on the subscription base of a given journal. Rather than waiting to see if this happens, why not do something about it now?

I’m not sure I can confidently predict the details of how the current situation will change, but I do think there’s an inevitability about a move away from restrictions on the distribution of content – whether that content is news, songs, videos or scholarly writing. Thinking and doing something about that now is a smart move.


Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.